It’s about feeling down, confused, and wondering why prayers keep coming back like undeliverable e-mails, or unopened envelopes marked “return to sender,” … and then finding help from someone who endured similar fears and frustrations– but to a far greater degree.
He had made a name for himself. The most important book in the world would eventually tell his story. He could have talked endlessly about the miracles he had seen, and the people he had helped.
His annual reports could have looked impressive in miles traveled, meetings held, lessons taught, and problems endured.
But there’s also a huge down side to Paul’s story that shows up with a twist when he claims bragging rights nobody would envy. Not wanting to be misunderstood, he wrote,
“I know I sound like a madman, but I have served him far more! I have worked harder, been put in jail more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again.
Five different times the Jews gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. I have traveled many weary miles. I have faced danger from flooded rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the stormy seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be Christians but are not.
I have lived with weariness and pain and sleepless nights. Often I have been hungry and thirsty and have gone without food. Often I have shivered with cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm. Then, besides all this, I have the daily burden of how the churches are getting along” (2Cor 11:23-28, NLT).
If we don’t stop to think about what Paul had endured in behalf of Christ, we might be put off by his “boasting”– except for what it really involved… and because Paul was so careful to not take credit for what he had done.
In an earlier letter to the same people Paul had written, “I have worked harder than all the other apostles, yet it was not I but God who was working through me by his grace” (1Cor 15:10).
In his second letter, Paul went on to say that he had learned that if he really wanted to brag, it should be about his weakness– for it was in the middle of humanly unsolvable problems that he had experienced the presence and strength of his Lord.
So Paul adds, for our benefit, that in his overwhelming problems, the Lord had said, “My power works best in your weakness.” So Paul writes, “I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may work through me. Since I know it is all for Christ’s good, I am quite content with my weaknesses and with insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2Cor 12:9-10).
What a strange prescription for trouble. Yet when I look back– rather than trying to do the impossible of seeing forward, I see it once again. Our Father and Lord leads all of his children through a similar path that enables us to understand not only the apostle Paul’s “bragging rights for losers” but also the wisdom of another Apostle who wrote,
“When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives my brothers, don’t resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends! Realize that they come to test your faith and to produce in you the quality of endurance. But let the process go on until that endurance is fully developed, and you will find you have become men [and women] of mature character with the right sort of independence” (James 1:2-4, Phillips trnsl).
So may our Lord help us today not to waste the pain… and even more importantly… not to waste the pain on ourselves.